When it comes time to vote for Kern County Sheriff, candidate Justin Fleeman said he offers a more engaged, approachable alternative to incumbent Donny Youngblood. And he offers an alternative to Youngblood’s plan to reopen the Ridgecrest jail.
Fleeman also wants to reopen the Ridgecrest jail, but unlike Youngblood, Fleeman wants to do so with funds from the Sheriff’s Department budget without relying on uncertain additional funding from the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
Fleeman, who is currently a Kern County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy, sat down with the Daily Independent Wednesday to talk about what he would do if elected and how he thinks Youngblood has lost touch with both his constituency and his own department.
Fleeman seemed skeptical about Youngblood’s recently-announced plan to re-open the jail.
Youngblood said May 8 that he intends to ask the Kern County Board of Supervisors for funding to reopen the Ridgecrest jail and that he also hopes to get more deputies on the streets in the unincorporated area around Ridgecrest.
“What is the likelihood of him getting the money and why is it all of a sudden now a priority?” Fleeman asked. “We all know, it’s an election year and that’s why it’s a priority.”
He added, “This is in my opinion just another empty promise that he is trying to make to in order to keep his place as the sheriff.”
A key part of Fleeman’s campaign has been that he will re-open the jail and put deputies back on the streets in the Ridgecrest area, including at night. Fleeman said additional funds from the Board of Supervisors would not be necessary and that he has a plan to re-open the jail and bring the deputies back using the current Sheriff’s department budget.
“As a sheriff I don’t need to ask for more money. Within the budget that we have I can open the jail,” he said. Youngblood estimated the cost of running the Ridgecrest jail at $700,000 a year. Fleeman said that number seems a little high, but he could save $900,000 annually by getting rid of at least one helicopter and associated costs such as hangar fees and keeping an extra help pilot on hire.
Fleeman praised the Ridgecrest Police Department and the California Highway Patrol for helping cover the area in the absence of Sheriff’s deputies but said the Sheriff’s department needs to do their share.
“The sheriff needs to do the sheriff’s job and that is take care of the jails and not expect Ridgecrest and the taxpayers to sit and continue to be underserved by ineffective leadership,” Fleeman said.
Fleeman spoke passionately about the need for bringing back full coverage from Kern County Sheriff’s deputies.
“We have to push staffing out here and make sure it’s staffed. You cannot let a community like this go dark and not provide protection. That is ridiculous.”
Fleeman said serving the outlying areas of the county will be a priority if he is elected.
“Within the first year I will have a plan for every outlying area and unincorporated area that we serve to show them this is what our law enforcement levels should be like in your community.”
Specifically, he said, the Sheriff’s department could staff the outlying Ridgecrest area simply by reassigning officers in the ankle bracelet monitoring program to this area. He said the officers are currently in Bakersfield regardless of the location of the people they are monitoring.
“Why not push the deputies out to the areas that they are working?” he said. “You have more supervision of the people that you are supervising and you can respond to calls for service.” Fleeman said he has made the suggestion but it has not been acted on.
Fleeman was born and raised in Kern County and is married with an adult son and daughter. He has put in nearly 20 years with the Sheriff’s Department and he said he has worked in every area of the department with success. He has a degree in emergency services management.
“If there is anything disastrous, that should be helpful,” he said with a laugh.
He is a strong supporter of the second amendment. “I am from this area, of course I support the second amendment,” he said.
Fleeman said he decided to run against Youngblood out of an sense of obligation and duty when he realized, he said, how disconnected Youngblood had become.
“If I felt [Youngblood] was even doing a decent job, I never would have run against him.”
Fleeman described Youngblood as more focused on the realties of politics and re-election than serving his constituency.
“He is out of touch. He has turned into a politician. Over this time, he has gotten complacent. He will say this is a political job. It’s a political position because you got elected, but you work for the people. And at the end of the day I believe that the people are going to rise up and realize that its time for a change,” Fleeman said.
He said that the Kern County Sheriff’s Department is lagging behind other public safety organizations in community outreach – something he intends to correct if elected.
In addition, Fleeman said Youngblood has lost the confidence of his own staff―many of whom have only met him once. “Many deputies have been on the force for years but have never seen the Sheriff except when he pinned the badge on them. We have civilian staff that have never seen the Sheriff,” Fleeman said.
Fleeman said he has not seen the Jan. 17 memo from Kern County Sheriff’s department Lt. Michael DeLeon recommending reopening the jail if the Timbisha Shoshone casino project goes through. As such, Fleeman said he is reluctant to comment specifically on the casino project but still supports reopening the jail.
“I would want to see facts before I jump to a conclusion,” he said. “Just because there is a casino does not automatically mean that there is going to be an increase in crime. I don’t think that it matters if the casino is there or not. This community needs to have a jail.”